9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 16, 2009

TV's: Help or Hindrance in the Communications Center?

There was a time when television was considered just an entertainment medium. Not anymore.

A television set is a growing -- if not essential -- resource in communication centers across the country, according to messages posted on internet newsgroups. Yes, it brings movies and network TV shows, but satellites and other services provide critical weather, news and other information for public safety agencies.

TV's and VCR's in communication centers are an appropriate and useful resource, according to communications manager Bob Amick, "They provide updated information on weather alerts, watches, and warnings, law enforcement events, etc. that may be of interest to public safety officers in the affected area," he wrote from Colorado. In seven years, he said the TV and VCR have never been misused or abused.

Amick said that during civil disturbances in his jurisdiction last spring, dispatchers watched news coverage of the event to stay informed. "If the dispatchers know what the public is hearing and seeing on TV," Amick said, "they often know what to expect when calls start coming in about various things that may be going on in their jurisdiction."

Besides commercial television, his agency can receive video from HAM radio operators who set up portable cameras at major events, and educational satellite broadcasts from FEMA and other government agencies. His agency subscribes to Law Enforcement Television Network (LETN), "which often has good training programs of interest to communications personnel," according to Amick.

Isn't a TV distracting to communications center personnel? Amick said the television actually helps keep personnel alert. "Rather than being a distraction," he said, "it is actually useful in maintaining a higher level of attentiveness." When things turn busy, "dispatchers have the good judgment to keep the TV/VCR off or on mute."

Amick said the TV doesn't hurt morale either. "Circadian rhythm studies show that the level of alertness and cerebral activity is lowest at about 6 am, so the use of stimulating medium at these times can be very helpful."

All Bands

In Missouri, Steven Makkay, Sr. said a television helps to band a dispatcher's viewpoint. "When you are inside a controlled environment," Makkay said, "you must rely on external sources to make you aware of things happening 'out there.' " Viewing local media for news bulletins and weather is almost essential, he said. Makkay said dispatchers frequently consult the local news shows for their live helicopter coverage of major incidents, and use it as a tool to size up an incident.

Video tapes now play an important part of continuing education for dispatchers, Makkay said. Each shift is given the opportunity to view tapes, sometimes videos of incidents for evaluations. "Having the equipment in the communications center means there doesn't have to be relief called in to fun the boards while the working crew watches TV in a training room," he said. His communications center doesn't have TV now because it's short on space. But they previously had Primestar, paid for from dispatcher donations.

The Rules

So once the TV is installed, how do you manage it? Linda Olmstead posted an internet message from California that laid out her agency's policy, adopted after dispatchers voted "yes" to the idea.

First, no TV from 0800 to 1700 weekdays, unless a major, local incident is being carried live. At no time will the audio interfere with the job at hand, Olmstead said, and never will the TV audio be transmitted over the public safety radio. Lastly, no arguing over the program or the remote. "If everybody can't agree, then the set gets shut off," Olmstead posted on the internet.

Diane from Vermont posted that her communication center has had a 13 inch set for 18 months and have not had problems. "Other than catching a news update for something 'big', we rely entirely on videos for what we watch." She said the night shift dispatcher uses the TV the most, but the evening person may put it on if its really quiet. Her agency has no formal rules -- "Our chief trusts our judgment about whether it should be on or not."


But not all agencies are receptive of TVs. Eric typed from Texas that his agency does not allow televisions or AM/FM radios in his communications center. Dispatchers previously were able to watch TV on late evening and night shift when it was slow, and listen to the radio on any shift if it did not interfere with work. But management objected, saying "We have received complaints about background noise," according to Eric.

He now works the night shift and said, "On nights after about 0300 or even earlier on slow night the time drags." He has tried to seek out work, "but there is only so much busy work you can do." "I am pro TV in the communications center," said Eric, "and hopefully someday the higher ups will see the light and realize that night shift and slow shifts do need something to do to stay alert and bring back the entertainment."

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